To the London Review Bookshop on Tuesday evening to hear Lydia Davis read and discuss her work with Kasia Boddy. My interest was piqued by a recent enthusiastic review in the LRB of Davis’s Collected Stories. The collection runs to over 700 pages, yet I’d not come across her work before. Many of the stories are very short, some no more than a sentence. Combine that with comparisons to Kafka and Beckett, and a review in the Guardian warning that “reading too many of these 730-plus highly distilled pages in a single session is a bit like trying to down a bottle of Calvados” – well, I was definitely ready for a taste.
Kasia Boddy introduced Lydia Davis, describing her stories as “supremely self-conscious”. Davis read a clutch of her pithy, laconic stories, including some recent ones from a series she’s writing based on dreams or dream-like states, and also four or five beautiful, freely-rendered stories she’d found embedded in letters written by Flaubert. (Davis is also a translator of French writers such as Proust and Blanchot). She prefers to describe her pieces as ‘stories’ rather than ‘short stories’ (and certainly not the dryly academic term ‘texts’), and talked about her very short stories being written almost as a response or counterbalance to the long, complex sentences she was wrestling with while translating Proust. She is interested in the slipperiness of identities, and an exacting focus on microscopic detail. A tantalising reading and stimulating discussion, so I happily joined the queue to buy a signed copy of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.
Afterwards, over a beverage in the Princess Louise, my literary-and-more companion Nick Rogers, a master of distillation himself, summed up his impressions of Davis’s stories – “quiet unassuming brilliance”.